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10 Utility Scams to Avoid


Video: Warning Signs of a Utility Scam

You could swear you paid that last gas and electric bill. But the caller from the power company is adamant that you’re overdue and says if you don’t pay up now, your water, gas or electricity will be cut off within 10 minutes — the last thing you want in the chilly dead of winter (or the long, hot summer, as the case may be). Best not to risk it.

That’s how scammers want you to think, and enough people pay to make utilities a common subject of impostor scams, by far the most common type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “You may be contacted by phone call, text message or in person. But what [utility scams] have in common is that they want to be paid immediately,” says Floyd B. McKissick Jr., who serves on North Carolina’s utilities commission and chairs the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Committee on Consumers and the Public Interest. 

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Older adults and non-English-speaking customers may be the biggest target of these scams, but millennials and Gen X customers have been victims as well, says Monica Martinez, executive director of Utilities United Against Scams, a consumer education group. Whatever your demographic, be assured: “A utility company will never call and tell you they are going to shut off service in minutes,” Martinez says.

Though utilities try to stay ahead of the curve and share information about scams with the public, the best way consumers can protect themselves is to be proactive, not reactive, McKissick says. To become an educated consumer, be aware of these nine additional utility scams:

1. Refunds for overpayment

Rather than claiming you owe money, scam callers might say you’ve overpaid, and they’ll ask for bank account or credit card information to make a “refund.” In order to “process” your money, they’ll ask you for a credit card number to get your financial information, Martinez says.

2. Free energy audits

Workers may arrive and offer to give you a free “audit” for energy efficiency in order to gain entry to your house.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

3. Offers to lower energy costs

You may get an email or see a social media post with an offer to sign you up for a government program that reduces energy bills or a charity that will help pay bills. Scammers often ask for a small “donation” of $50 as a service charge or to pay the good deed forward, Martinez says. The scammer’s aim is to collect personal information for use in identity theft.

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4. Offers to switch service

Criminals may offer to switch services for you on the spot, pressuring you to sign a contract. Or they may offer to install alternative energy equipment, such as solar panels, and mention tax benefits, saying they need your financial information to tell you how much you’ll save. They may offer financing and want you to fill out an application. “Their objective is to steal your information. Don’t be pressured by these tactics,” McKissick says. “Take their information if you want, but don’t give them yours.”

5. Charges to restore power after natural disaster

During a service outage, scammers may pose as utility workers wearing vests and carrying walkie-talkies — easily bought online — and offer to put you on a preferred list to restore service quickly or claim they need a reconnection fee to restore service. “We see an uptick of these happening when there is a crisis situation,” Martinez says. Crooks try to lure people into giving personal information or to hand over money. Utilities do not require reconnection fees in crisis situations, nor do they offer priority service restoration, McKissick and Martinez emphasize.

“No one is going to knock on your door and demand money. This is not a tactic utility companies use,” McKissick says.

6. Investigating emergency leaks, fixing or checking equipment on your property

Scammers may knock on your door posing as utility workers telling you they need to fix what they claim is an emergency gas leak or to inspect new equipment. “They get wind that (a utility company) is putting in new meters like smart meters,” Martinez says. Scammers often follow in the wake of installations and tell customers they need to pay a fee to get the meter double-checked, often presenting it as a safety issue.

7. Impostor texts and emails

Utility impostors send out phishing emails or smishing text messages aimed at convincing you to make a payment or supply personal or financial data to sort out a service issue.

8. Fake websites

A growing scam involves online ads that appear to be from utility companies offering service or easy ways to pay, sometimes including QR codes that claim to link to payment pages. “We’re seeing a lot of this with new customers because you’re more likely to hop online and search ‘who’s my utility?’ ” Martinez says. If you are looking for new service, check your state utility commission and local chamber of commerce for lists of companies that provide service.

9. Opening accounts in your name

Identity thieves use stolen personal information to open utility accounts and run up charges in the victim’s name. 

How to protect yourself

  • Stay calm. Scammers are good at making you panic, Martinez says. If you are told power is going to be cut off immediately, take a deep breath and remember that utilities do not cut off service without considerable advance warning. If callers demand payment immediately, that should be a red flag, McKissick says.
  • Call the utility’s customer service number. A representative can tell you if you are behind on a payment or if the utility tried to contact you. “Get the number from the actual bill you receive, not from a website or from a caller,” McKissick says. “Utilities companies have highly trained staff to assist the public, and they are the best source.” Martinez, who pays her bill online, says she keeps a digital copy of her bill on her phone in case she needs to call.
  • Beware of unusual payment requests. Utilities will never ask to be paid in gift cards, prepaid debit cards or cryptocurrency, McKissick and Martinez say. Never give money to a supposed utility company worker who shows up at your house.
  • Never share personal information with a caller. “Utility companies do not need your date of birth or your Social Security number. And they don’t need to know whether you are receiving Social Security,” McKissick says. “Usually the service address is what a utility company will ask you for.”
  • Ask for employee identification. Always request their employee identification number, and call the utility company to verify their ID and the reason for their visit, McKissick says.
  • Don’t click on unverified links. Don’t click on links in a utility-related email, QR code or text message unless you’re certain it’s from the real company.
  • Notify law enforcement, your utility company and your neighbors. If you’re being targeted, chances are others in your town are too. “[Scammers] tend to focus on one or two utilities in a region with a certain type of scam. Local law enforcement and utility companies can warn customers to be on the alert,” Martinez says.
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What to do if you’ve been targeted in a utility scam

  • File a complaint with the FTC (online or at 877-382-4357) and report it to your state attorney general’s consumer protection officestate’s utility commission and your utility company.
  • Contact your bank to see if it can stop payment and put any necessary fraud watches on your account. The FTC has a guide with useful information on how you can try to get your money back.
  • If someone has opened a utility account in your name, call the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange at 866-349-3233 to get a copy of your account history and dispute any inaccurate content. You can add an extended fraud alert if you have been a victim of this scam, so companies are required to verify any account opening with you for seven years.

For more on utility scams: Utilities United Against Scams offers information on utility-related impostor cons on its website and in its Consumer’s Guide to Impostor Utility Scams.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.